The backstory is a cretaceous tale, we might say: For years, great behemoths roamed and ruled the earth. But suddenly, an unforeseen change in circumstances laid them low.
The behemoths I'm referring to? The rock music titans of the 1970s: The Who, The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, and the like. In an era in which NFL players still took off-season jobs to pay the rent, top TV actors often made little more than scale, and nothing like today's technology industry existed yet, '70s rock stars faced almost no rivals in the contest for riches, fame, adulation, cool quotient, women, and power.
But as any triceratops or tyrannosaurus might have warned us, nothing lasts forever. By the late 1970s, the rock music ecosystem was dramatically changing, and its faunae were in trouble.
The first blow was disco. Hardcore rock fans saw it as garbage. Moderate fans saw it more as a joke; but commercially and culturally, it was no joke at all. Disco theorists like Australian impresario Robert Stigwood and English journalist Nik Cohn (who together invented the "Saturday Night Fever" phenomenon) sold disco as much more than a musical genre. In their telling, disco music was nothing less than the élan vital of an exciting new way of being. The disco lifestyle was glamorous, fun, sparkly, sexy, and carefree. It was also one in which every man and woman, on any given dance floor on any given Saturday night, could and would become a star in their own right: their very own Tony Manero (John Travolta's lead character in "Saturday Night Fever").
No longer would a "big musical night" consist of sitting in a stadium, baked on heavy indica, 250 feet away from a stage, watching a distant Led Zeppelin jam out a rambling, 34 minute version of "Dazed and Confused". On a disco night out, you—everyone—became the star. You and everyone else were there in satin and sequins, bathed in lights, music pumping, adrenaline surging, people laughing, drinks flowing, hot girls everywhere, and people admiring your fancy duds, slick dance moves, and feathered hair.
As the popularity of disco grew, rock clubs, one by one, began turning into discotheques. Acts like the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and KC and the Sunshine Band began selling more than rock bands, and getting more spins at radio. The hip new disco trend began siphoning off rock genre dollars. For the first time ever, the Rock Gods of the '70s felt nervous—even insecure. Some even began incorporating disco features in their songs—some successfully (see here, here, here, and here), some unsuccessfully (see here, here, and here).
The next blow to 70s rock was, psychologically, even more damaging. Whereas disco had merely ignored the rock titans (after all, disco was too busy partying to take aim at anyone), the new punk movement out of England savagely attacked them. Rock's behemoths, said the punk bands, were ridiculous, obsolete, pretentious, and inauthentic. As multi-millionaire Establishment sell-outs who lived in country mansions, they not only didn't meet the threshold for cool—they were embarrassing societal blights. Just for starters, look at their appearance, said the punks: open shirts; gaudy medallions; shoulder-length manes; "side-pipe" genitalia protruding through tight, hip-hugging, flare-legged jeans...it was laughable. Just like their music, which was preposterously self-indulgent. Songs were too long, too complicated, and polluted with masturbatory solos. The whole scene, said the punks, was bollocks.
But there was more to the punk criticism of arena rock than mere mockery. There was moral condemnation. Whereas punks claimed to represent an exploited working class (especially the youth), they saw rock titans as representatives of the very system which exploited that working class. That is, in the punk view, the titans weren't just foolish-looking egomaniacs who played overwrought music; they were ideological enemies. The punks were holy warriors fighting a sociopolitical holy war against an unjust status quo represented by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, and all their pals. The evil dinosaurs deserved extinction. So did the entire ecosystem which sustained them. Punk embodied the anarchic populist energy which would finish the job. Punk itself would be the final extinction event.
Between the disco inferno on the one hand, a raging punk assault on the other, plummeting profits, and internal problems within many top rock bands, the late '70s left rock staggering. It wasn't just the loss of money, but the loss of confidence. Even years, decades later, for example, Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant has never gotten over the punk criticisms (see also here).
As the '70s approached '80s, many of the top rock acts disappeared, temporarily or permanently. The odd anomaly popped up in that period—Van Halen and Def Leppard being the most notable examples—and AC/DC, as always, powered on through. But for the most part, '70s arena rock had vanished.
For serious rock music fans, these were frustrating years. Yes, there were some great tunes out in other genres, but the days of "Won't Get Fooled Again", "Kashmir", "Carry On Wayward Son", "La Grange", "Hotel California", "Last Child", and a hundred others, were now just a memory. Adding to the sting, Aerosmith had imploded because of drug use and fighting; Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant had died in a plane crash; Who drummer Keith Moon, and Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, had both died (with Zeppelin breaking up); no one knew where ZZ Top had gone, or a dozen other big bands (my dad quit BTO, and then BTO vanished, too); and even rock bands trying to push on through the disco, punk, and then New Wave trends, just weren't getting the airplay anymore.
For some who had appreciated the Big Drama vibe of '70s rock, the dawn of LA hair metal provided some relief. But not for me, and not for most of the kids around me. For us, the hair metal bands presented cheap cartoon melodrama—nothing real. The musicians themselves were skilled. But overall, in terms of songs—in terms of substance—it was all frosting, no cake. At least when Marc Bolan appeared on stage wearing glitzy face paint or a boa, he was playing some great rock songs. Not so with the '80s Aqua Net crew, at least for me.
All of which is to say that music fans like me, in that era, felt a void. We craved earnest, Big Drama rock, but struggled to find it. Hair metal was a transvestite clown show. Disco had its catchy melodies, but wasn't our thing. Early punk was more about attitude than musicality, so that didn't really resonate. Hardly anything did anymore.
And that's why the brand new song I heard one day (exactly forty years ago this January), from a band I knew almost nothing about, had such a profound impact on me, and so many others. From the first moment, you knew it was more than just a song. There was some force within it that changed you, and which you knew would change popular music forever, and even the world outside music. And so it has proven.
More next time.
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